Managing Emotions as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
It’s been a hell of a year for big, emotional topics looming large in our awareness. We’ve all experienced some form of struggle stemming from the unprecedented global crisis affecting our world. Whether we found ourselves in an extended work from home scenario for the first time, or whether social distancing kept us separated from friends and family, it’s been a hell of an ordeal. And that doesn’t even begin to address the political climate or any personal challenges we may be facing in our individual lives.
As someone with high sensitivity, a biological trait discovered and named by Dr. Elaine Aron, high levels of intense emotional energy can take a toll if I’m not careful. If you’re reading this, you’re likely either a fellow highly sensitive person (HSP) or have one in your life, so part of the goal of this article is to help you better understand the HSP trait. Even more important than that, I’d also like to share how I personally deal with big, raw emotions (which HSPs have in abundance) in a healthy way.
Dr. Aron developed fascinating research and wrote a number of great books on the trait of high sensitivity, so I won’t rehash her discoveries here. However, if you want to learn more, you can access resources on her website or take the HSP self-test here.
Essentially, a highly sensitive person is anyone born with the biological trait (distinctly different from a personality trait) of sensitivity that sets them up to experience life intensely through each of their senses. And that does mean all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. We notice many subtleties in our surroundings that others often don’t.
HSPs are also known for experiencing life on a very deep level internally. This can take up a lot of our energy, and we’re often quiet for this reason. It’s like our internal state has 8 browser tabs open at all times: we can still operate, but tasks will take time to complete and there’s a lot going on under the surface. Sometimes it can take us days to process a particular experience or mentally explore a big new idea. We’re also very conscientious and sense the moods of others easily, making us extremely committed and attuned as partners and friends.
With only about 20% of the population in possession of the HSP trait, we know and understand that the world is designed for the 80% majority, so we learn to navigate life in our own way. It’s not that we don’t want to be out in the world – far from it. After we go on our adventures to concerts or travel or spend a lot of time socializing in unfamiliar spaces, we require extra downtime afterwards to regain our equilibrium. The need to be restored is simply what our biology demands. Most HSPs thrive when they have time to recharge away from hustle and bustle or lively groups of people, in the quiet and solitude – or at the very least, a space where they can control their environment (lighting, temperature, sound, smell, etc).
What it Means to be an HSP
Being an HSP has everything to do with how I perceive the world around me. In fact, if I wasn’t highly sensitive, I am certain I would still be living undiagnosed with my recently-discovered Hashimoto’s autoimmune disease, because my symptoms were so subtle and under the radar that even I almost wrote them off as insignificant. I believe my HSP trait makes me a better sister, friend, partner, writer and fur mom.
There are a number of cornerstones I consider necessary to living my best life. To share my methods in an organized way, I was able to pinpoint six elements I need to incorporate daily to process the world and my emotions, and to create the balanced sense of wellbeing I want in my life.
Staying tuned in and actually listening to the still, small voice inside can be scary. HSPs feel their feelings in a big way, and even after years of practice, I still get scared to let myself feel them sometimes. It feels like if I let myself ‘go there,’ I will be swallowed whole. But, as I like to remind myself on a regular basis: I won’t die from a feeling. Paying attention to misplaced emotions, like anger at something that wouldn’t normally make me angry, is a good place to start. Processing my emotional backlog is a huge factor in my mental and emotional wellbeing.
Exercise is an essential component to managing my emotions. If you think of the word emotion as energy in motion, it helps describe the concept of emotion as a real energy, and our physical bodies give emotion a vehicle through which to pass. I commit several days a week to weight training and add in a mix of swimming and walking around my neighborhood to get a good balance of activity. When I first started practicing yoga regularly, I would frequently experience an emotional release and just burst into tears after a practice (another reason I workout at home). It was so cathartic. Unfelt feelings can get trapped and stagnate. Nothing can access those pent up energies stored in the body like exercise can.
Journaling is a daily part of my life. I’ve kept a diary or journal since I was tiny, but only as an adult have I used it as a tool for mindset work and only in recent months have I committed to a daily practice. It was becoming more and more noticeable on the days I didn’t write that my wellbeing suffered as a result. My morning ritual after waking is to make a cup of coffee and take it to my office, close the door, and open up my journal to a blank page to release everything on my mind. Recording my thoughts on paper helps me see in front of me what’s going on inside, and then I can make informed decisions about how I want to feel moving forward.
Taking care of myself by attending to allllll my inputs is huge. Inputs are what I call the things that influence my life, and they refer to anything I give my attention to. They include what I eat, read, listen to, watch, who I talk to, and how I spend my time. Being aware of my inputs and making sure they nourish me as an HSP helps me know that I’m using my energy wisely. If things start to feel ‘off,’ usually one of my inputs has gone awry. Inputs that always help are nurturing foods that make me feel like I value myself, watching a show that gives me good belly laugh (thanks, The Office), reading empowering books, listening to fascinating podcasts and long, intimate talks with my friends or sisters.
I need time to recharge, preferably alone in the quiet. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I have about a four-hour social battery for intense, unfamiliar experiences (parties, big family gatherings, outdoor adventures). When that battery runs out, it’s out. It has to be recharged to get back into working order.
My career is based on working from home. Plus, I don’t have kids, so a lot of solitude is built into my everyday life. This did not occur by happenstance… and I’m very lucky to have a partner in life that understands and supports my HSP nature. I enjoy doing things alone because it allows me to replenish my depleted energy. I’m no stranger to browsing bookstores, hanging out by the pool, reading or exploring the local farmers’ market solo. When I’m in recharge mode, I often observe this time in silence with no tv background noise, music or podcasts. The more stimuli I can reduce, the better.
HSPs can get way up in our heads. To the casual observer, it may come across as distant or standoffish. I’ve been told more than once about my resting bitch face (sorry, it’s just my face). Often, we’re simply processing our inputs, but the perception that we’re snobby can make it difficult to reach out and relate to people. We’re not dicks – we don’t want to burden you with our giant-ass feelings. But true, genuine connection with another person is incredibly important to almost every aspect there is about being human. Our wellbeing, emotional health and quality of life depend on it. It can be hard for me to put into words what I feel to make genuine connections with others. But eventually I get there, and it feels really good to relate to another person on an authentic level.
Take care of you
As an HSP, big emotions are just a part of life. They’re not going anywhere, so the sooner you create helpful ways to manage them, the better. For a while, it was tough to reconcile expressing my HSP needs with the way those needs might affect others. Would I hurt peoples’ feelings, would they think I was weird? I used to feel guilty for having a different makeup than most of the people I know. Guilt created resistance inside me, which led to me ignoring what I knew I needed to do, which then led to resentment and burnout by forcing myself through situations where I was already overextended. When I stopped comparing my life to other peoples’ lives, it got a lot easier. Embracing my HSP nature and aligning it with how I live has made all the difference between running on empty and living a full life.